Coping with Cancer at the Holidays


MSK held an Information Session for Patients and Caregivers with the goal of helping people cope with the unique experience of managing a cancer diagnosis or treatment, and facing survivorship and caregiving, during the holiday season. The session was moderated by William Breitbart, MD, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at MSK. The session covered such topics as how to set expectations during the holidays, dealing with treatment setbacks and advice for caregivers.

“In the holiday season instead of focusing on how do I get rid of these thoughts about my cancer or how do I not think about my cancer, instead focus on those things in the holiday seasons which are really important to you,” shared Christian Nelson, PhD, Chief of MSK’s Psychiatry Service. “Hopefully if you focus on those things that are enjoyable during the holidays you can move that a little bit back in your mind, maybe not think about it as much, and maybe not be worried about it as much and then hopefully enjoy the holiday season more.”

When it comes to setting boundaries for yourself at the holidays, MSK psychiatrist Monique James, MD, had some advice about how best to navigate an often demanding time of year. “We all have limited energy and that is true whether you’re going through cancer treatment or not, however of course, going through cancer treatment and recovery, our energies are even more limited.  So, it is going to be important to prioritize them,” she shared.  “Setting boundaries is really being honest with ourselves to know our own limits. I often encourage prioritizing your energies to take stock of the things during the holidays that you really enjoy.  What is it that you want to place your energies in, because you first have to have this kind-of internal dialogue before you give them to your loved ones. So, be honest with yourself, listen to your body.” 

“One of the things that we’re missing most is our ability to attend religious services.  It’s so meaningful to many of us at this time of year and to be apart from that – from that candlelight service that may be so meaningful or to be with family and friends, lighting the Hanukkah candles.  It’s just a yearly thing that we look forward to, and it makes an open place inside us,” added Reverend Jill Bowden. “I’d like to remind everybody, especially in this COVID time, that Zoom is your friend.  We don’t need to be in isolation when we can have Zoom because we can be present and we can choose how much to be present, which is really important… Reach out for those religious services and those family gatherings for as much as you feel like being present.”

MSK plans to continue these Patient and Caregiver Information Sessions on a regular basis to help address concerns from our larger community on a variety of cancer-related issues. Information on upcoming sessions and a recording of previous sessions can be heard on our website here.